As Co-Founder and Creative Chairman of Pereira O’Dell, PJ Pereira is committed to using his skills and relationships to make a positive impact on the world. In his five years as an Ad Council Board member, PJ and Pereira O’Dell have created work for a range of Ad Council campaigns including Texting and Driving Prevention, Recycling and Coronavirus Response.
Most recently, PJ enthusiastically raised his hand to partner on a new campaign, Belonging Begins With Us, which had special resonance for him as a Brazilian immigrant to the United States. We talked to PJ about how that unique perspective informed how he experienced and reflected on this unusual year—both as an individual and a leader in our industry.
Hilary Landa: Tell us more about what led you to founding your creative agency, Pereira O’Dell. What are your organization’s core beliefs and values, and how do you bring that to life in your work?
PJ Pereira: Since day one we’ve always defined ourselves not through an answer, but a question: if advertising were invented today, how would we do this? For years, that question led to journeys into technologies and how people consume media. Recently, the importance of the corporate world in the fight for social justice, combined with the role of the giant voices we manage through our clients, has made that question gain an even bigger meaning and importance. I don’t think we have an answer, or to be honest, I don’t think we ever will. And I’m fine with that. Because the provocation has never been an attempt at nailing the ultimate truth. It was a commitment to always search for it. I don’t think there’s a more important skill today than searching.
HL: The United States has faced some unprecedented challenges this year as the nation continues to reckon with systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic. How has your perspective as a Brazilian-American immigrant informed how you led your organization through this unique moment in time?
PP: Two recent experiences helped me understand my own world as an immigrant a little bit better. The first was reading a tweet from a US Senate candidate saying, “Most immigrants from third world countries have trouble assimilating to civil societies.” That made me realize how racism and xenophobia aren’t just explicit acts of violence. They are a threat—a constant fear that at any time you may need to defend yourself or your family. And also the knowledge that something like that could happen to you and be so shocking that at first you may run out of words and then spend the rest of your life reliving the moment and thinking about what you should have said.
That realization helped me better understand, not only the weight of anti-immigrant discourse, but also the constant feeling under the skin of everyone who is mistreated by others not because of what they have done, but because of the group they presumably represent.
The second experience was watching Kamala Harris elected vice president of the United States. A daughter of immigrants, just like my son. But there was more. The pride with which she waved her immigrant flag has deeply transformed me. It made me realize the power and the responsibility of being an immigrant in a highly visible position. The hope we can and should inspire. That moment changed how I see myself and my position in the world, forever.
HL: Pereira O’Dell recently partnered with the Ad Council to create the “Belonging Begins With Us” campaign. How has your experience, both as an individual and in your decades of experience in our industry, informed your approach to this creative and how you think about what it means to “belong”?
PP: I did a study once with my friend Laura Chiavone for the 3% Conference about how Brazilian creatives saw their experience arriving in America compared to how their companies saw them. The differences were fascinating, if you’re optimistic, or rather scary if you want to be jaded. Mostly because the expectations were too different. Brazilians expected the same kind of support from their employers that they had back home and were willing to work twice as hard in return. Because of their lack of cultural context, their employers couldn’t see those expectations and no matter how hard they tried, they never understood what the Brazilian creatives expected and struggled to focus their efforts on what seemed like unreasonable requests from “spoiled prima donnas.”
We did that study not because we wanted to protect people from our country, though. It was just an example of how a single detail like nationality could make the dialogue so impossible. When you combine that with all the other nationalities and other forms of diversity the business world has been challenged to embrace more, it can seem like an impossible task.
We can’t solve an emotional problem with logic and process. It’s not by cataloguing and algorithmizing decisions that we will build social justice. Somehow, we will have to learn to learn, to listen, to read each other’s feelings better, to want to understand each other’s context. Or even be OK with not understanding the reasons but accepting that things that seem reasonable or unreasonable for us, may be the exact opposite for someone else.
Ultimately, belonging isn’t a feeling that develops when everything happens to your expectation. It sets in once you feel the place isn’t rejecting you because of who you are or where you come from. It happens when you realize the world around you actually wants you to be there.
HL: Could you tell us about some other projects you’ve executed this year that you’re especially proud of?
PP: Saying this has been a special year is a major understatement. But it’s inspiring how the people behind big brands in all fields have stepped up to try to find a role in making things better, or at least more bearable. Pereira O’Dell launched a summer campaign for Stella Artois that dealt with people’s frustration around not being able to spend the summer outside, and told them to daydream instead (we even brought back Lovin/Spoonful’s iconic song “What a Day for a Daydream”).
For Fifth Third Bank, we used the same mechanics retailers use to track themes people like to convince them to purchase items on social media to run ads warning them what retailers were doing. Think of an ad saying “This would be a sneaker ad” for someone who has bought sneakers online before. All to make them think twice before they bought something they would regret later. For Anheuser-Busch Inbev’s Corona (globally, except for the US) we developed a content series called “Free Range Humans” that talked to everyone thinking about leaving big cities and helped them visualize a life much closer to nature.
HL: What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received, and how did it help you?
PP: “The best advice” is an ever-changing entity, isn’t it? Each phase of our lives, each moment of our society, there’s something different that helps you navigate the chaos around us. Right now, I think the best advice is always trying to understand where people are coming from. Not rushing into harsh judgments and assuming the best in people. And listening, listening, listening.
Those are more than just critical skills today—they may be the most important intention we need to consciously instill onto ourselves if we want to help build the transformation history expects from us.